"Too Many Messiahs, Not Enough Servants"
Nov.30, 2008 1st of Advent Mk.13:24-37
Too Easily Impressed by the Ephemeral
There is much in this world that tries to grab our attention and impress us. But what we are impressed by does not usually last into eternity. Our lesson today reminds us what we have to look forward to is much greater than anything this present life can offer.
What has been impressing you lately - grabbing your attention, or enticing you as something that is a 'must have'? Is it at the top of your Christmas wish list?
On Wednesday, tourists were perhaps fulfilling the dream of a lifetime when they were visiting two of the ritziest hotels in Mumbai, India. But quickly those trendy destinations were turned into places you wanted NOT to be as Islamic militants stormed in and began shooting.
Shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus was visiting the temple in Jerusalem, Israel's religious 'high point', with his disciples. Herod's magnificent temple was truly impressive - 150 feet tall and 150 feet wide. The historian Josephus notes some of the stones were 37 feet long, 12 feet high, and 18 feet wide! What a block! So no wonder the disciples were impressed. Ch.13:1, "As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!"" But Jesus somehow knew that, before half a century had passed, the Romans would have levelled it all. He replied, "Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."
It's very easy for us humans to develop an 'edifice complex' - to take pride in what we build, how big it is - being ignorant of how small it really is and how ephemeral or quickly passing in the light of eternity. The Titanic, the greatest ship that ever sailed, sank on her maiden voyage. The twin towers of the World Trade Centre, symbol of America's wealth and commercial leadership, were downed in hours by two hijacked planes. We are too easily impressed by idols that don't last.
The disciples found it hard to imagine the temple would be destroyed, and asked the Master when such things would come about. In response, Jesus looked far ahead into the future and told them what they should really be looking forward to, what they can prepare to be impressed by. V31 He said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." What we see is ephemeral, passing: but what God promises - Jesus' coming, giving us Himself - is worth anticipating the most.
There are signs of the end, but there are also things that are NOT signs of the end - that may be ongoing up til the time of Jesus' return. What are the things that NOT signs of the end-times?
Vv5-6, "Jesus said to them: "Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am he,' and will deceive many." Also vv21ff, "At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or, 'Look, there he is!' do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect-- if that were possible." So, false Messiahs are not necessarily a sign the end is nigh: they are to be expected. Humans are gullible, and liable to place their confidence unrealistically in some new saviour with good PR coming on the scene. It's this unwarranted trust that gives a false Messiah their power.
During the US election, commentators noted that Americans were looking to Barack Obama almost as a Messiah. He may be a great leader - I hope he leads that large nation well - but the problems faced are on such a scale that it depends on far more than one person.
Young Islamic men have been putting their faith in other 'messiahs' - men like Osama Bin Laden, or whoever is leading this new "Deccan Mujahadeen" that came on the scene this week in Mumbai. But what kind of messiah is it that would encourage people armed with machine guns to start shooting indiscriminately into a crowded railway station? Horrid as that is, these false Christs are able to channel anger and hate into brute force.
In your life - is there a false Messiah? Do you take your cues from Don Cherry, or Jennifer Aniston, hoping that will make you a somebody? Whose 'style' do you try to imitate? Is that really the direction God wants to take your life?
Another thing that's NOT a sign of the end is conflict. Vv7-8, "When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom..." Certainly wars and national clashes have been going on since before Jesus' time and will continue until the Millennium.
Jesus also refers to conflict on the home front, particularly springing from hostility of other family members when one becomes a believer in Christ. V12, "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death." The recent violence in the state of Orissa in India is an example of how violent people can become against Christians.
Persecution happens in the community as well as in the home. In vv9&13 Jesus predicts how disciples will be brought before local councils and kings, flogged in the synagogues - "all men will hate you because of Me." Persecution may be overt or hidden: if you're suffering ridicule or alienation from others because you belong to Jesus, know you're sharing in the experience of the faithful down through the ages and in many countries. It's not so much YOU they're reacting to or don't understand, but Jesus-in-you.
So - false Messiahs, conflict on the national and home scales, and persecution are not signs the end is near: these are just to be expected as a fallen world lumbers blindly on while some embrace Jesus and start living lives that stand out to others in a most 'unworldly manner - with holiness, love, forgiveness, and grace. False Christs are just deceptive decoys that will be seen to be just that when the Real McCoy returns - however impressive their signs and miracles may seem.
Signs of His Coming
You won't see many signs of spring right now - we're more concerned with the height of the drifts and what's showing on the weather radar. But when winter nears its end in a few months, you may notice buds swelling on maple and poplar trees as warmer weather approaches.
The people of Palestine in Jesus' time had different trees, being a Mediterranean climate, but they too watched the trees for signs of changing seasons. Vv28f: "Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door." What 'these things' is He talking about? In the previous verses He must have listed things that ARE signs of His return, so let's go find them!
First is in v10, "And the gospel must first be preached to all nations." If you read Matthew's version of this discourse in chapter 25, v14 there adds, "and then the end will come." So somehow presenting the Good News about Jesus to all nations is one of the factors to be completed before He returns.
This week we received an encouraging mailing from the Canadian Bible Society. They report: "After a 200-year ban on Christianity, the Government of Nepal has announced that this year Christmas Day will be a national holiday for the first time ever! Shops and offices will be closed, banks shut, and children will be given the day off school. And for the first time ever the church family can worship openly together without fear of reprisal. [They add] As recently as 1990, being a Christian in Nepal or spreading God's Word to others, was illegal and almost certainly meant facing a prison sentence. Yet today, Nepal has one of the fastest growing churches in South Asia..." Isn't that wonderful! What a turn-around! The gospel is being preached to all nations - and making a difference.
A second very definite but somewhat mysterious sign is found in v14: "When you see 'the abomination that causes desolation' standing where it does not belong..." What is this 'abomination that causes desolation'? The phrase takes us back to Daniel 9(27), 11(31), and 12(31): historically it seems to parallel an idolatrous altar to Zeus set up in the Jerusalem temple by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 BC. Paul writes to the Thessalonians that the 'man of lawlessness' (an anti-christ) "will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God." (2Th 2:4) Whatever this 'abomination' is, it's a perversion of true worship - stealing from God the honour that is rightly His and re-directing it to some lesser being.
Here's a check - what are our objectives in worshipping here today? Do we come to worship 'for us', to get feeling better emotionally and be seen with 'the right crowd'? Do we come to worship to be entertained? Did the choir 'favour the congregation' with an anthem? That makes worship an abomination, to turn it around and focus on US rather than the Lord Almighty. He is the 'audience of One' who deserves our prayers, praise, and offerings.
A third 'sure sign' of the end is in vv17-18, 'dreadful' 'days of distress unequaled from the beginning...and never to be equaled again.' We're not told exactly what makes them so dreadful - only that it will be very difficult, especially for those who are pregnant or nursing. It will be notably different from the 'earthquakes...and famines' at other times (v8).
Fourth, there will be a cataclysm on a cosmic scale. Vv24-25, "But in those days, following that distress, "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.'" The language may be poetic or from earth-perspective - 'stars falling from the sky' could be some sort of nuclear holocaust, followed by dense cloud and fallout darkening the sun's light; or it could be that God starts suspending those 'laws of nature' and attractive forces we've always taken for granted - gravity, forces of sub-atomic attraction, the speed of light, and so on. 2Peter 3(10) talks about it this way: "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare." Rev.6(14) says 'the sky receded like a scroll, rolling up' - appropriate if you consider this universe's 'given's' as a set of God-authored language and story that can be closed up at will like a book and put back on the shelf.
But the fifth sign - the main one, the one toward which all the others have been leading up - is Jesus coming back to take those who are His to Himself. His second 'Advent' or coming, also called the 'parousia' or 'appearing'. Vv26f, ""At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens." That's you and me, if we happen to be alive then! His 'elect' are His 'chosen' ones, those who've been granted saving faith.
Other 'false Messiahs' will promise much but not deliver; they exist to serve themselves, Jesus comes back to rescue His church. They are deceptive decoys; He's the 'real McCoy', the genuine article. False Christs seek people's devotion so they can get power from them: the true Christ accepts our trust in order to know us and give His life to us through the Spirit.
Paul puts this ultimate Christian hope this way in 1Thessalonians 4(16ff): "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words." That's what's our main encouragement in this life, what's to make the biggest impression on us - not 150-foot-high temples or fancy homes or big RRSPs but realizing we have an ongoing, never-ending relationship with the very Lord of the universe!
Surprised - but not sleeping - Servants
While Jesus seems pleased to share with His 'inner circle' of disciples what's going to happen in the end times, He doesn't leave them there trying to guess exact dates or abandoning this day-to-day world in expectation He's coming to whisk them away. "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." No, Jesus doesn't want us to be some 'Millennium Cult': He brings us back to living for Him day-to-day, here and now. Two practical lessons or upshots from this fascinating peek at what's to come.
First, BE ON GUARD / DON'T BE DECEIVED. Over and over throughout the passage He advises us to "be on your guard" (9&23), "Be on Guard! Be alert!"(33), "Keep watch" (34&35). Don't let those false Messiahs hoodwink you with their impressive miracles and enticing promises. Don't be awed by the inventions of man - whether Herod's temple or the CN Tower or Xbox360 - don't become so 'enthralled' by what enchants the world that you forget who and Whose you are. Don't be deceived by 'the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things [that] come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.' (Mk 4:19) Christmas may be looked toward this year especially to save the economy, but if in the hustle-bustle of buying and unwrapping presents Jesus gets forgotten, we've been deceived.
Second, APPLY YOURSELF TO YOUR ASSIGNED TASK AS A FAITHFUL SERVANT. Jesus closes His talk with a metaphor - v34, "It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch." And no one knows when he's coming back! V36, "If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping."
Knowing Jesus is some day coming back is not an excuse to slack off, quit our job, and dawdle around discussing doctrine all day long (though some in the early church tried doing that - and were rebuked by Paul, 1Thess 3:6,11). Knowing He's returning inspires us to do our best as faithful servants, wanting to be found carrying out 'our assigned task' when He arrives.
Are you asleep at your post - or are you a servant faithfully keeping at your assigned task? Are you tempted to 'slack off' in evangelism and expressing Jesus' love to others because He may not come back in your lifetime? Be alert!
What parallels are there between the modern church and the North American car industry? A recent Maclean's featured the cover story, "The long, sorry decline and ultimate crash of the mighty North American car industry." It describes the shrinkage of the so-called 'Big Three' (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) to, as they're now called, the 'Detroit Three'. The article identifies labour issues as one factor, quoting a historian - "The UAW had insatiable greed, and none of the companies could stand up to it." But much of the blame must be borne by management for its failure to respond to consumer demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. One authority states, "With GM you have a company that's reactionary. It's never proactive; it never gets ahead of its problems." It had plenty of opportunity to right itself but didn't.
Whether we're a manager or labourer or student or homemaker, greed and laziness and self-centredness can hobble us and make us poor servants of Christ. That's ultimately destructive, as we see what was once a huge industry now on the verge of bankruptcy.
In 2Tim3(1-4) Paul describes the type of people there will be 'in the last days': "People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God..." Is that sounding anything like society today? If so, the time may be drawing near! Jesus came to save us from all that - to transform our sinful nature into His holiness, to be faithful servants, eagerly awaiting His return. Let's pray.